What was the status of craft brewing when you arrived in the U.S.?
Back in 1986, there were about 50 breweries, period, including all the big guys. I came here in June of ’86 to help David Geary build Geary Brewing Co. About a month after I got here, Richard Wrigley opened the Commonwealth brewpub in Boston, and that was the first brewery in New England.
This was before Boston Beer?
They were just in the process of starting up.
So most of the activity was in the Rockies and the West Coast.
Anchor and Sierra Nevada are the obvious ones.
Hence your importance in what’s happened on the East Coast. Walk me through some of the microbreweries you helped set up in the early days.
McAuslan Brewery in Montreal: after Geary’s, I was there for six months. We also got Gritty McDuff’s brewpub going in Portland. After McAuslan’s, I went down to Maryland and established Wild Goose. Then I went to Hart Breweries in Ottawa, which is now not operating, but was for quite a while. Right before David Geary, I helped the Golden Lion brewpub in Lenoxville, QC, which is still operating today. The Granite Brewery in Halifax, NS, and also in Toronto; Kevin Keefe still doing quite well.
What was your role in all these ventures?
In England, I worked originally at the Ringwood Brewery in Lincolnshire, which was owned by Peter Austin. He’s been a brewer for 25 years at Hull Brewery in the northeast of England and was a well-established brewer. He retired early and decided to set up the Ringwood Brewery as a hobby, which turned out to be very successful. This was just at the time when the large brewers were doing away with cask-conditioned ale, which needs extra work and can lead to a lot of spoilage. The Campaign for Real Ale had kicked in about 1974 to save the real ale pint, so Peter Austin established a small-scale brewery to do cask ale at Ringwood. People started asking him to advise on getting involved on such a venture. So he ended up building and designing breweries for other people in the UK, and I joined him in 82. I have a biochemistry degree, and I learned to brew practically with him. To design and build breweries with him was the goal of my employment.
Was Ringwood one of the earliest new breweries in the UK?
It was probably the first.
In this country, you are associated with the proliferation of the Ringwood yeast. What’s its history?
When Peter set up the brewery, he went back to the brewery in Hull and asked if he could take some yeast from them. That yeast originated at an old brewery in Halifax going back many, many years., so it was traditionally a Yorkshire yeast. They used to trade yeast between Halifax and the North Country Brewers in Hull. There are stories of filling an oak barrel with yeast at Hull and putting it on a train, and it would be met by a brewer at the other end who would take if off, or vice versa if they needed yeast, so they had quite a swap going.
The Yorkshire yeasts require open-topped fermentation and aeration on the second day. That’s what happens at Sam Smith’s, for instance, and Black Sheep and many other Yorkshire breweries. That’s why the Ringwood yeast ultimately operates how it does. The yeast is obviously designed to produce what we think are great flavored English-style ales. What we’ve done here at Shipyard and others have done is to have quite a diversity of styles. That was not really explored much at the English breweries, which tend to be more conservatively producing best bitter, or strong bitter or extra strong bitter. We’ve used it, obviously, to produce recently some very strong ales in our Pugsley series, as well as fruit beers―our pumpkin ale and Sea Dog Blueberry wheat ale, stouts, porters, IPAs, pale ales. The diversity of beers has proven the yeast to be very versatile depending on how the brewer decides to employ it in a recipe.
What people call “Ringwood yeast” is a couple of strains combined.
Yes, it always has been. There are many yeasts that are probably multi-strained, whether people know it or not! The Ringwood yeast has a fast-attenuating yeast and a fast-flocculating yeast. The combination of them together means we can attenuate our beers in about two and a half days, which is a fast fermentation; and when we fine beer for cask, the yeast drops out of suspension within 12 hours and you have a crystal-clear, bright beer.
How do you have to baby the yeast along to get it to perform in so many different ways?
Nothing special, really, other than treating it with kid gloves, keeping it within its temperature range and fermentation practices, sticking to the right pH range, keeping things clean and sanitary, and brewing often so every new generation gets a fresh set of wort on a regular basis rather than long storage times. When we first starting doing the very strong beers, 9.2 percent (which I know is not strong by some people’s standards, though it’s certainly strong by mine), I thought it might probably stall out and be poisoned by the alcohol. I was pleasantly surprised how well it attenuated and how fast. Not that we would re-pitch after a fermentation that strong, because the yeast was definitely weakened. But whether you’re fermenting a beer that’s 1090 original gravity or 1030, just keeping it consistent with temperature and handling, and not shocking it is the real key.
People say Ringwood yeast leaves a distinctive flavor. Can you take a sip of a beer and identify it as a Ringwood beer?
It depends on what I’m tasting it against. I can tell you, there are some yeasts out there that are a lot more distinctive than Ringwood, no question about it. Ringwood has its own slant and character: it’s very English. When you go to England, people over there will say the Ringwood yeast is pretty neutral. It depends on how you look at it. If you look at it from an English standpoint, it’s pretty neutral; if you look at it from an American standpoint, people think it has a signature. All I can say is it produces great beer.
I don’t think beer enthusiasts understand the influence of yeast in the way they do, say, the grain bill or the choice of hops. I had a wonderful experience once, tasting beers all made to the same recipe, where the only difference was the hop variety. I wonder if anyone has tried that with different yeast strains, just to educate people’s palates.
That’s a good question. We tell people who come on tours here that we could take our Shipyard Export Ale wort and brew it with six different yeasts and get six different beers.
Do you go back to the source for yeast?
I do have an ability to get the two major strains in a freeze-dried form, but I’m glad to say we’ve never had to. Really, Shipyard is the source at this point for a lot of the brewpubs I set up.
Are you still helping set up new breweries?
No, I’m fully focused on Shipyard brewery and all our affiliates. We have eight brewpubs, and a lot going on. We certainly still help the different breweries I helped set up if they call with questions, but regarding building new breweries, buying equipment and so forth, I’m not doing that. That’s not to say I might not do it again some time in the future in some sort of autumn, but I’m not sure that day will ever come.
You’re at the center of a very vibrant brewing community in Maine.
Maine is fantastic, lots of people are doing well. There are probably 40 breweries, between brewpubs and breweries, ranging from a couple of tiny breweries that have just started up, to us―we’re the biggest―and Geary’s which has got a very good position, to Gritty’s and Allagash. It really is a vibrant community. Everybody gets along pretty well; everybody’s doing well.
It’s a destination now for beer lovers.
Portland is probably in the top three cities in the country for culinary experiences, great restaurants, great beers, and just generally a fun place to be―clean and safe, good vacationland, a good place to live and bring up the kids. It’s definitely got something going, this whole area.
Do you feel a little glow of paternal pride when you look at what’s happened?
I’m happy we’ve all been successful, but I can only take a very small amount of credit, in reality, I’m just a brewer.
Do you get back to England often?
I probably get back once or twice a year. We did a fun thing this June. The Ringwood Brewery where I worked was actually sold to about fours ago to Marston’s, a fairly good-sized brewery in England. They invited me to come over this summer and brew a Shipyard beer at the Banks’s Brewery in Wolverhampton, which is another brewery they own, an old, traditional cask-conditioned brewery, good sized, 200,000 barrels per year.
They wanted to do something for July. We ended up calling it Shipyard Independence Pale Ale, and basically designed a new beer to be served cask-conditioned, a 4.2 percent blond best bitter with an American hop twist. We brewed 350 barrels with the brewer there and had a great time. It’s a wonderful old brewery, too, all open-topped fermenters. People here are sometimes come for a tour and are shocked by the open tops here―we have about 20. At Banks’s, they have 106 fermenting vessels, of which 98 are open-topped, lovely squares, rectangles, round vessels―absolutely fantastic.
You helped establish English-style ales here, and now you go back home as the American cousin, so to speak, with American hops. Is it exciting, sharing American beer culture with brewers there?
Marston’s has a good program, they own 2,500 pubs and different groups, and they have this guest beer program all their pubs can participate in, with four different guest beers a month one way and another, whether they brew them or they come in from somewhere else. It was fun. The brewers there were excited; I was certainly excited to go back and brew a beer there. I guess you call those things a collaboration these days. We felt proud about that.
Funny, we got a lot of emails from beer drinkers in the U.K. People wrote who had experienced the beer on the Isle of Jersey, in South Wales, in Rochdale in Yorkshire, Hull, the Midlands, Wolverhampton. I thought that was more of a U.S. thing, but apparently not.